In sports, among the hardest things for the casual fan to parse is how much influence a coach directly has on your team's success. As Laker fans should be deeply familiar with, an awful lot of it is not easily quantifiable. Phil Jackson arguably won three championships at the turn of the millennium less via whatever in-game strategy he was implementing and more by convincing Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal that trying to win titles together instead of killing each other was a more productive use of their time. We see the flip side to that coin now with veterans scoffing, justly or unjustly, at Mike D'Antoni's brand of ball despite his proficiency for designing excellent plays and a system that has utterly transformed the way basketball has been played over the course of the past decade. A lot of this is understandably dependent on context, as a coach who is primarily a motivator might not need exceptional Xs and Os skills to bring together a talented squad that has locker room issues, whereas other teams might require a system that allows them to play as more than the sum of their parts.
Naturally, this isn't a binary choice between the two: some coaches simply possess a more pronounced ability in either, nor are they the only options on the list. Locker room management, in-game adjustments, an overall system or strategy they adhere to, an ability to motivate and connect to players, skill at developing young players, media relations, and we can go on and on. Very few of those things lend themselves to a hard, objective analysis except we know that coaches have to reasonably proficient in most, if not all of them. We are ultimately forced to ascertain as much as we reasonably can from watching their teams play, sift through anecdotal evidence of their coaching style, and make the best judgment that we can. Look at the sheer negative reaction when Mike Brown was hired in 2011 when just by looking at record and credentials, he crushed every name on the list yet it was his inability to manage a locker room, design a coherent offensive scheme, and win the crowd in LA that contributed to his demise.
This isn't to say that John Calipari follows a similar vein to Brown, but examining his resume beneath the luster of his accomplishments could very well provoke a similar visceral and rather negative reaction to the prospect of hiring him should Mike D'Antoni be shown the door this offseason. On the surface, Calipari is definitely a name, in that he'll command the attention of the average fan instantly and by all accounts, would be a "splashy" hire that can be easily sold to a currently skeptical Lakers faithful. It would be fairly analogous to the Lakers shooting for Duke's Mike Krzyzweski as the replacement for Phil Jackson following his departure in 2004, seeking a coach that had sufficient gravitas to not only walk into LA and handle the pressure and media attention of coaching LA's most recognizable sports brand, but command the respect of the players on the team.
And by all accounts, this is certainly a point in Calipari's favor. We shouldn't dismiss out of hand a coach who has sufficient stature to immediately obtain a measure of the buy-in that has so far eluded the last two Lakers' hires, or at the very least, among their star players. Whatever system Calipari implements, strategic choices he makes, or so forth will probably get the benefit of the doubt from his players because he has a documented record of success to fall back upon, as this most recent tournament run attests to. This would also be valuable in the case of the Lakers' new rookie player, as Calipari would be his coach presumably for a fair chunk of his formative years in the league, and not being at least serviceable in player development isn't a trait common in the upper echelons of the college coaching profession.
Indeed, the hold that Calipari exerts over the imaginations of young players is quite impressive and his consistent success on the recruiting trail and relationships with many current NBA stars, including one LeBron James, attests to this. This noted, while it's arguably the most important facet of a college coach to be able to consistently recruit well, something that Calipari likely does better than anyone in the nation right now, it is of incredibly limited utility in the pros, beset by troublesome things such as the salary cap and a general manager who deals with things like that. Perhaps his presence encourages players to come, but since when has that been a problem for LA? Last offseason featured an entire litany of players who took discounts to play in the purple and gold, and stability and a return to form for the Lakers will help much more with the recruiting of the stars they want to get than who ends up coaching them.
To be sure, Calipari's locker room presence helps in that regard and a good recruiting voice doesn't hurt either, but the main issue with him is that what he brings on the court isn't particularly impressive. The dribble drive motion offense he implemented at Memphis and Kentucky isn't really a pro scheme, especially in a NBA that demands a great deal of technical skill in executing offenses nowadays (cough) Spurs (cough) to combat increasingly complex defenses. His record of success, moreover, is predicated almost entirely on his college success elevating him above the very mediocre NBA coach he was during his stint with the Nets from 1996-99, during which he finished with a .391 winning percentage.
Maybe an assistant coach more adept in Xs and Os can help in this regard, as you can then limit Calipari's weaknesses, but why go through all of that effort? If we look at the list of possible D'Antoni replacements that Craig posted a few weeks ago, there are plenty of options that combine both the locker room management and media skills that Calipari provides along with more focus on the in-game part of things. Both of the Van Gundy brothers would fit that description, as would someone like Lionel Hollins, an old school, no-nonsense type. Even names farther down the retread list such as George Karl would probably be better options than handing over the reins to someone who hasn't even really proven that he can successfully coach in the NBA.
Should we limit the list to college coaches, Calipari still comes short. After all, why do we even want a college stalwart? Look at what the Celtics did in hiring a young wunderkind in Brad Stevens and trying for an upside selection instead of one of the old mainstays that are more recruiters nowadays than actual coaches. Craig brought up Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg and he would fit right into that framework, a guy who is an innovative offensive coach yet has both NBA playing and front office experience to buttress his resume. So would Florida's Billy Donovan, who nearly ended up in the NBA in 2007 as the coach of the Magic before bizarrely returning to Florida.
When it comes down to it, the most eligible candidate for the Lakers next season actually might not be Calipari, but the guy who was coaching opposite him in the national tournament game in Kevin Ollie. Although he was born in Dallas, Ollie has LA roots and went to Crenshaw for high school before heading to Connecticut as a college player. A longtime role player in the NBA and by all accounts a superlative locker room guy, Ollie has had the "future coach" label on him for a long time and went right back to his alma mater as an assistant after ending his playing career in 2010. After two years as an assistant, he replaced Jim Calhoun as the head coach and the rest is history.
Now, hiring Ollie, even after Monday's events, is still a pretty big leap of faith considering he was a NBA player only four years ago, but he hits just about every intangibles benchmark you could possibly want from a coach and courtesy of his title win, now has both the gravitas for the locker room and the hold on the media for that "splashy" hire label. His two Connecticut teams were also driven primarily by guard play and the pick-and-roll, which sounds just about right for the modern NBA. To be fair, Ollie's staff would likely include one or two old-timers to help him along in the league just as Calipari would need someone more suited for NBA Xs and Os, but at least with Ollie, you have that ever so elusive upside factor present whereas it's much more limited with Calipari.
Given the choice between retreads with actual NBA success and young options in the college ranks with both more suitability for the pros and possible upside, it is hard to see much appealing about Calipari and his possible fit with the Lakers. Maybe he surprises and shows much more acumen than we give him credit for, but it is not especially encouraging when Yahoo! Sports' Dan Wetzel tries to sweep the issue under the table by noting offhandedly that he "might not exhibit the late-game coaching skill of top NBA guys." It is definitely very early in the process and we don't even know whether D'Antoni is going to be let go at all, but if Calipari is at the top of the list to replace him, methinks another year of D'Antoni would most likely be better for the team going into next season.
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